Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Humanitarian Health Volunteers in Haiti

It's been nearly 6 months since the Haitian earthquake tragedy

The need for humanitarian assistance in Haiti persists.  I wrote a blog in January than pondered the issues and challenges likely to face "first world" caregivers responding to the unfolding medical needs in Haiti.

Recently, Priscillia Patterson, an old friend and a retired Army colonel and registered nurse kindly shared some highlights of her experiences as a civilian volunteer (nurse anesthetist) with the University of Miami Global Institute Medishare Haiti Project. Reflecting on her experience as an Army nurse with two separate tours of duty in the war zones of Iraq, versus civilain humanitarian disaster volunteer nursing, Priscilla wrote, "Traveling with the Army is living large: hot food, cold water, hot showers, flushing toilets, ample staff, supplies, equipment and blood, and even shopping opportunities."  Her experience in Haiti, on the other hand, was in sharp contrast.  The harsh conditions there resulted in "nurse" becoming "patient" one day when 103 temperatures and a 14-hour-day in the spartan operating room left Priscilla (and others among the staff) so dehydrated that she required treatment in Medishare's ER.   

Priscilla kindly granted permission for me to publish excerpts of her emails in my blog:

"We worked everyday from 7:30 am to about  [7 pm] and then were on call for emergencies. Each day was pretty much the same, very busy:  lines and lines of patients, very sick children, traumas, ladies in labor. We tried to care for all who came . . . We managed everything from the routine, to very sick, to trauma, to burns, to labor and delivery . . . There were Haitian interpreters available to translate for us. Some patients understood French but most only knew Creole.

"At eleven in the morning we got mystery meat sandwiches and at five in the afternoon we got a scoop of rice and a fatty, gristly knuckle from an unknown mammal. These meals were cooked somewhere in Port au Prince and brought in on the back of a pick up truck. I do not know who paid for the food, perhaps a charity. The U.S. Army left some MREs behind so we also had these to pick through. Most volunteers brought food like nuts, dried fruit, tuna packets, peanut butter. I preferred the MREs and the dried food I took.

"The U of M Medishare volunteers shared one huge tent. There were probably 100 cots side by side. Some sort of water filter was installed a few months ago, so we got our water from two water faucets. The water supply was limited and the faucets went dry from time to time. We had cold showers and were limited to 60 seconds of water flow . . . We had port-a-potties which were cleaned every morning and supplied with toilet paper. An enterprising Haitian-American businessman has a hot dog/burger wagon which visited our compound on Mon, Wed and Fri. I was more than happy to pay $8.00 for a hamburger and coke.

"There have been tens of millions of dollars given to charities for Haitian relief efforts. I’m not sure where that money is, as I saw little signs of it. Perhaps some charity money was used for the meals of rice and mystery meat, cleaning the port-a-potties and toilet paper. Maybe there is a grand plan for all that money, who knows. All I can say is that if you give or have given to a charity ask lots of specific questions about what the money is going to be used for."

Priscilla shared a few lessons learned: 
Take toys, goodies for the children.
Have at least two water bottles and keep them full at all times.
Take lots of electrolyte drink mix.
Take food.
Go with a buddy
Final Thoughts

I have to admit that Priscilla's description of the warm-hearted spiritual Haitians she encountered who were so greatful for the care they received and accepting their grave situations with grace and humility has inspired me to contribute to the Medishare Haiti Project in some way.  It's wonderful to hear first-hand of a humanitarian aide success story.

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